Congress Theater restoration underway, but it’s got a long way to go

List of violations is lengthy; all or parts of the venue have recently been closed by inspectors

February 22, 2013

Following in its tradition of surprisingly gullible and shortsighted reporting on Chicago’s most troubled music venue, DNAinfo.com declared in a headline yesterday that “Congress Theater Owner Wants Venue Restored to Its 1920s Glory,” adding in the lede of the story: “The days may be numbered for anyone who loves to complain about the dismal bathrooms.”

Well, controversial venue owner Erineo “Eddie” Carranza may indeed want the historic theater restored to its prime. But as is made clear in the city Building Department’s ongoing legal proceedings against him, which cite a daunting list of 37 violations, he’s got a long way to go to get there.

In fact, city inspectors recently ordered the Congress closed to the public for eight days, from Jan. 31 to Feb. 7, because of the lack of quick-release “panic bars” on exit doors—a situation that proved fatal during the notorious stampede at the E2 Nightclub in 2003.

Furthermore, the violations on the upper levels of the building have resulted in the second and third floors being sealed off to concertgoers. The only exception is that patrons are allowed access to the second-floor bathroom—the dismal state of which remains open to debate.

Carranza and the Congress are doing battle with the city on three fronts, any one of which could result in shuttering the venue. Hearings before the Liquor Commission could result in the loss of the theater’s liquor license; the next session takes place on March 5. Hearings on the building code violations, which are being prosecuted by an attorney from the Law Department’s Drug and Gang House Enforcement Section, opened on Jan. 31 and resume on May 9. Finally, there are the much-publicized Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance proceedings, which resume on May 7, and which prompted the other two, potentially more serious lawsuits.

While DNAinfo reporter Victoria Johnson cheerfully quotes Carranza’s optimistic promises for a spiffy Congress development that will include a community center, a premium bar, a café, a restaurant, an ice cream shop, a grocery store and a second, smaller nightclub, and her photographs show a fresh coat of paint being applied here and there, the substance of the 37 building code violations or the recent closures at the venue are not addressed.

“There are serious problems at the Congress,” a city official told this blog. “While the owner seems intent on remedying them, it is going to take a ton of money just to bring the building up to code.”

Lighting repairs alone top $100,000, the official added. “And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Meanwhile, Carranza has had no further word on the mysterious corporate partner and savior he promised DNAinfo in early January. As this blog earlier reported, representatives of the monopolistic national concert giant Live Nation met early in the new year with city officials and discussed an interest in leasing and operating both the Congress and the Portage theaters, though there has been no action in that regard in the last seven weeks.

Live Nation has so far declined to respond to requests for comment today and in mid-January.

Earlier reports about Carranza, the Congress and the Portage:

Jan. 16: Congress Theater liquor hearings begin with undercover cop’s testimony

Dec. 3, 2012: A rally to save the Portage Theater ‘as we know it’

Nov. 28, 2012: The Portage Theater uses Graham Elliot’s name in vain

Nov. 2, 2012: Congress Theater’s new security chief: An ex-cop with a troubled past

Oct. 31, 2012: Congress Theater police calls rank with Soldier Field, United Center

Sept. 23, 2012: How did things turn so bad so fast at the Portage Theater?

Sept. 22, 2012: New Owner of the Portage Theater moves to evict current operators

Sept. 16, 2012: Congress Theater splits with development partner

Sept. 11, 2012: The Portage Theater: What’s Eddie up to?

July 26, 2012: Congress Theater partners up… and looks to expand

April 14, 2012: More trouble at the Congress Theater

March 28, 2012: Critical of Congress security, headliner brings his own

March 25, 2012: Congress Theater responds to complaints

March 22, 2012: City to Congress Theater: Clean up your act!